As you may have heard, the Government are planning to replace student maintenance grants with loans from 2016/17. Maintenance grants provide students from poorer backgrounds with up to £3,387 per year of study to help with the cost of essentials such as food and study materials. Under Government plans, this sum of money will have to be repaid after graduation.
I am appalled at this proposal, which will adversely affect over 500,000 of the poorest students in England every year.
When tuition fees were tripled in 2012, the Government argued that students from more disadvantaged backgrounds would not be put off from entering higher education because of increased maintenance grants and the annually-uprated loan repayment threshold of £21,000 (this is the level of annual salary a graduate will attain before their loans are to be repaid).
Now maintenance grants are being abolished and the loan repayment threshold has been frozen at £21,000. This will severely impact upon the goal of widening participation in higher education. Research published last year shows that every £1,000 rise in maintenance grants increases participation in higher education by just under four percentage points.
The disparity between socioeconomic groups is already stark and can be seen in my own constituency: a child born in Clifton is six times more likely to go to university as a child born in Lawrence Hill. People from disadvantaged backgrounds are known to be more debt-averse and this measure will provide a big obstacle to their likelihood of realising their potential. Of course, we only have a limited idea as to how significant the effect of this will be as the Government have not published the interim equality assessment on which the decision was originally based.
Which brings me to my other major concern: the lack of transparency and democracy demonstrated in this process. These proposals were not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto; there was no consultation with stakeholders; and because they are being implemented through secondary legislation, MPs will not be able to vote on them and have continually been denied an opportunity to debate them. It concerns me that the Government are attempting to drive through as many changes as possible through secondary legislation, which gives little opportunity for effective scrutiny. The freezing of the student loan repayment threshold, for example, is legally dubious, and if not illegal is at least a flagrant breach of trust.
The Government have said that this measure will ensure that ‘higher education funding is more sustainable’, yet there is no assurance that this will actually be the case. The estimate of the RAB charge – which calculates the cost to the Government of higher education funding based on the amount of money that students will repay on their loans – will only be updated this summer, long after the regulations have been introduced. The issue here is that the Government do not as yet know what pattern will emerge concerning the time lag between students’ graduation and achievement of a £21,000 salary (the level at which loan repayments commence), or indeed how many graduates will ultimately achieve that level of salary at all.
After many attempts, my Labour colleagues have finally managed to secure a debate on this issue in Parliament, which will take place on 19 January. Unfortunately I will not be able to attend this because of the radiotherapy I am receiving in Bristol as part of the final stages of my treatment for breast cancer. However, I will continue to follow this issue closely and work with my Labour colleagues to press the Government on the unfair and unjust nature of their approach to education.